Monday, November 6, 2017

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope

Source of Book: I own this.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that my favorite Victorian author is Anthony Trollope. Indeed, he is one of my favorite authors, period. Since I started this blog, I have been reading one of his novels every year. This is no small task, as his books are generally quite long. The Last Chronicle of Barset is 891 pages long in the Oxford edition I own, for example. Here are the previous posts regarding Trollope novels:

Barsetshire Chronicles

The Barchester Chronicles (BBC miniseries based on the first two books, The Warden and Barchester Towers)

Other books:

These are not, of course, the only Trollope novels I have read. These are the ones I have read since I started blogging in 2010. I should mention Castle Richmond and The Bertrams as particularly excellent books.


The Last Chronicle of Barset is the final installment in the six book series set in the fictional Barsetshire area. The books are best read in order, as certain characters appear in multiple books, and the happenings in earlier books are referred to in the later books. However, they are not a continuous story. Dr. Thorne in particular seems to be its own tale, and can be read separately. The Last Chronicle, however, should not be read unless one has read all of the previous five books, because it brings together all of the major characters from those books for a final epic story (epic by Trollope standards, anyway) before Trollope informs the reader that he is done with Barsetshire, despite their demands for more.

As I have noted before, Trollope isn’t all that concerned with plot. True, the books do have plots, and those plots are carefully thought out and are internally and externally consistent. However, Trollope’s concern is for character. Thus, in many of his books, it is possible to understand how the book will end fairly soon after the first chapter. In some ways, The Last Chronicle is an outlier, in that a few key outcomes are very much in doubt until near the end. But, like his other books, the point is how each character in turn thinks and feels as the plot unwinds.

In this book, the main plot concerns the Reverend Josiah Crawley, first introduced in Framley Parsonage. Crawley holds a very small position in the poorest part of the parish. On his meager income, he struggles to keep his family fed and clothed. He is also a hard worker, takes his job quite seriously, and is by most measures a model clergyman. (Particularly in contrast to many with far greater wealth.) His main flaw is that he is prickly. He has some reason to be. Compared to many a wealthier man, he is better educated, more intelligent, and more diligent. He just lacks the connections to advance. And he knows it. He is conscious of his own superiority, and unhappy that his family lives in poverty. He is also extremely proud, and refuses assistance from others.

Mr. Crawley finds himself in hot water after he pays a debt using a negotiated check (fellow lawyers, remember negotiable instruments?) that turns out to have belonged to Mr. Soames, agent for Lord Lufton. Crawley is convinced he was given it by someone, but he is too scatterbrained to remember where he got it. Crawley is charged with theft, because he is believed to have accidentally pocketed a check Soames dropped at his house, then passed it. So basically a textbook case of conversion.

Crawley is already unpopular with Bishop Proudie, because he was appointed by the other faction in Barchester. Actually, as anyone who has read the first two books knows, the Bishop doesn’t actually care much. It is the domineering Mrs. Proudie who cares, and who attempts to insist that Crawley be dismissed from his position before the trial, as she believes he is absolutely guilty.

Meanwhile, there are some subplots going on. Archdeacon Grantly’s son, Major Henry Grantly, wants to marry Reverend Crawley’s daughter Grace. His father objects, and Grace won’t have him as long as there is a blot on her father’s name.

There is ongoing drama between the Proudies, as she goes further than ever before to interfere in his affairs and humiliate him in front of his colleagues.

Miss Dunstable (from Dr. Thorne and Framley Parsonage) has become engaged to Bernard Dale (from The Small House at Allington).

Bernard is cousin to Lily Dale (also from The Small House at Allington), who is cousin to Grace Crawley. Lily is still being sought by Johnny Eames, who she is not in love with, despite his being a mostly decent sort, and recently enriched by inheritance from a wealthy stranger.

Johnny is friends with Conway Dalrymple, a London painter, who is a main character in the major subplot involving financiers in London, a suicide, a few attempts by designing women to capture eligible men, and a painting by Dalrymple of Jael putting a stake through Sisera’s head. In which a certain young lady sits as Jael behind her mother’s back.

And that is why the book is so long.  

As always, the delight is in the details.

I won’t quote it here, but the description of the lawyer, Chadwick (who isn’t even a character, just the partner of a character), is delightful.

Or how about this exchange involving Grace Crawley, Lily Dale, and Lily’s mother?

“Have you ever observed, Grace,” said Miss Dale, “how much amusement gentlemen require, and how imperative it is that some other game should be provided when one game fails?”
“Not particularly,” said Grace.
“Oh, but it is so. Now with women, it is supposed that they can amuse themselves or live without amusement. Once or twice in a year, perhaps something is done for them. There is an arrow-shooting party, or a ball, or a picnic. But the catering for men’s sport is never ending, and is always paramount to everything else.”

I wasn’t much of a fan of Lily Dale in The Small House at Allington, but she comes off much better in this book. She has grown up, and is no longer mooning after the worthless Mr. Crosbie. Here is another line, about how she expects to be an old maid.

“I see it in people’s eyes, and hear it in their voices. And they all talk to me as if I were very steady, and altogether removed from anything like fun and frolic. It seems to be admitted that if a girl does not want to fall in love, she ought not to care for any other fun in the world.”

Sadly, this often is still the case in our modern times. Single women tend to be dismissed.

Another quote shows just how much Lily has grown. She is talking with her mother about Mr. Crosbie, who has been widowed (after having jilted Lily in the last book…) Crosbie wants her back now, and she won’t have him, even though she retains some feelings for him. But she also knows she shouldn’t marry him.

[Mrs. Dale:] “He has nothing, at least, for which to condemn you.”
“But he would have, were I to marry him now. He would condemn me because I had forgiven him. He would condemn me because I had borne what he had done to me, and had still loved him - loved him through it all. He would feel and know the weakness; - and there is weakness. I have been weak in not being able to rid myself of him altogether. He would recognize this after awhile, and would despise me for it.  But he would not see what there is of devotion to him in my being able to bear the taunts of the world in going back to him, and your taunts, and my own taunts. I should have to bear his also, - not spoken aloud, but to be seen in his face and heard in his voice, - and that I could not endure. If he despised me, and he would, that would make us both unhappy.”

This is amazingly perceptive about the dynamics at play here. I have indeed seen similar issues lead to a divorce later. It is never a good thing when one spouse knows he or she owes the other.

The Dalrymple subplot leads to some interesting lines too. (Weird fact: I had a friend with the last name of Dalrymple when I was a kid. His parents were ninja-level birthday party planners…) Dalrymple first meets Clara Van Siever at a party, and is not attracted to her...except that he envisions her as Jael. She, naturally, isn’t particularly flattered at his idea either.

“I think it no compliment, I can assure you,” said Miss Van Siever.
“And none was intended. But you make observe that artists in all ages have sought for higher types of models in painting women who have been violent or criminal, than have sufficed for them in their portraitures of gentleness and virtue. Look at all the Judiths, and the Lucretias, and the Charlotte Cordays; how much finer the women are than the Madonnas and the Saint Cecilias.”

I think I may never look at art quite the same way again…

 One of the original G. H. Thomas illustrations.

In the end, Clara agrees to pose, and Dalrymple falls in love with her. Because of course. But not before a big row occurs with Clara’s mom and Mrs. Dobbs Broughton and Dalrymple tears the unfinished painting in half. Mom offers to pay for the painting at a paltry price, and Dalrymple names an exorbitant one. It is a great example of how an artist might bargain.

A few lines from or regarding minor characters also stood out. Mr. Toogood is Mrs. Crawley’s cousin and a lawyer. He is talked into taking on a bit of the case by Johnny Eames (who is likewise related, if you recall.) Mr. Toogood has a large family and a wife who hates it when he takes on pro bono work. Toogood goes ahead anyways.

“One doesn’t have a cousin in trouble every day,” said Toogood. “And then you see there’s something very pretty in the case. It’s quite a pleasure getting it up.”

I’m sure most of us attorneys have done this before. There is a pleasure in taking a case that won’t pay much if anything, but presents something truly interesting to do. Or at least some sort of justice which needs to be done.

Speaking of the law, there is something sadly pathetic about Mr. Crosbie and his ill fated marriage. In The Small House at Allington, he jilts Lily to marry the daughter of an earl. The marriage is a disaster, before she dies, leaving him with a pile of debts and without the inheritance from her family they both expected. He ends up in debt a few thousand pounds as a result of this disaster.

Another hilarious scene is between Johnny Eames and Sir Raffle Buffle, the pettifogging politician that Johnny works for as private secretary. Since Eames is now independently wealthy, he doesn’t have to work, even though he prefers to. Eames therefore pretty much writes his own work ticket, much to the annoyance of Buffle, who prefers to bully his staff. When Johnny informs Buffle that he will be taking a vacation (to go track down the Arabins, whose testimony is necessary in Crawley’s case), Buffle blusters and threatens, and when Johnny goes anyway, changes his tune by telling everyone that he urged Johnny to go. Everything must be spun, right?

There are two marriages that get a close look in this book, and I find the contrast to be telling. The first is between the Proudies. As everyone became fully aware in Barchester Towers, the bishop is weak, and dominated by his wife. Mrs. Proudie is worse than domineering, however. She makes a thorough hash of just about whatever she touches. In the earlier book, her attempts to change the religious observances of the residents of Barchester do not endear her to her people. Her favoring of Obadiah Slope, who is about as close to a true villain as any Trollope character gets, causes much damage and backfires badly.

In this book, Mrs. Proudie again puts her nose in where it does not belong. The bishop’s “wait and see” plan has sense. After the trial, if there is a conviction, he can certainly remove Crawley if he wishes, but before that, he has no legal grounds, and Crawley knows it. When Mrs. Proudie insists on sitting in on what should be official business, she not only fails, but humiliates her husband.

As a feminist, it is interesting to evaluate Mrs. Proudie. Is she frustrated with the role allotted to her? Of course. But it is also true that she has no business in a position of power. She lacks the ability to work with people. She has the supreme conviction that she is always right (and everyone who disagrees is wrong), a pettiness and vindictiveness that makes and keeps enemies, and a pathological need to control everyone around her. I can think of a person or three that I know like this, and it is not a recipe for success in relationships.

Trollope rarely paints any characters as one dimensional, however, and Mrs. Proudie is, in her own way, a complex human. Trollope also makes some astute observations about her - and people like her.

Mr. Crawley belonged to the other party, and Mrs. Proudie was a thorough-going partisan. I know a man, - an excellent fellow, who, being himself a strong politician, constantly expresses a belief that all politicians opposed to him are thieves, child-murderers, parricides, lovers of incest, demons upon the earth. He is a strong partisan, but not, I think, so strong as Mrs. Proudie. He says that he believes all evil of his opponents; but she really believed the evil.

I guess politics hasn’t changed much. Trollope later in the book makes a particularly damning evaluation of her.

She had meant to be a good Christian; but she had so exercised her Christianity that not a soul in the world loved her, or would endure her presence if it could be avoided.

A sober warning to us all, and one that I fear the American church is ignoring right now.

In the end, Trollope says of the bishop, “He might have been a sufficiently good bishop, had it not been that Mrs. Proudie was so much more than a sufficiently good bishop’s wife.”

The contrasting marriage is that between Archdeacon Grantly and his wife Susan. She has been a very minor character in the series, and no particularly well developed until this book. It turns out that she has quite a bit to recommend her. The archdeacon is, in many ways, the perfect counterpart to Mrs. Proudie. He is emotional, volatile, petty, and conceited. But he lacks her fortitude. So he never really manages to harm anyone. One of the reasons for this is his able management by Susan. I have observed before that the women run everything in Trollope’s world. The men fuss and fume and rattle about, but the women make the real decisions for good or evil. Susan Grantly actually has more real power over her husband than Mrs. Proudie, in large part because she is smart and subtle about it. She knows her husband and his moods, and always picks the right time. Mr. Grantly is determined to threaten his son with disinheritance if he marries Grace, but Susan knows that he will never follow through. So she strategically uses delay and gentle persuasion to keep him from taking any action he will later regret. In the end, he calms down, and all is well. This does irritate the archdeacon, because he knows how things stand.

After this, the archdeacon walked away, and would not argue the matter any further with his wife at that moment. He knew very well that he could not get the better of her, and was apt at such moments to think that she took an unfair advantage of him by keeping her temper.

Indeed. Also, I resemble the archdeacon sometimes, I must admit....

Mrs. Grantly also makes a great observation about the father and son, neither of whom is willing to give in.

“They are as like each other as two peas,” she said, “and though each of them wished to be generous, neither of them would condescend to be just.”

That’s just fantastic. And true. It is more fun to be generous than to simply admit the other party’s rights.

There is another great line near the end, when it becomes clear that all the fuss was for nothing, and the archdeacon finds he must kind of sort of eat crow.

It must be acknowledged that Archdeacon Grantly always kept his promises, and especially such promises as these. And indeed it was the nature of the man that when he had been very angry with those he loved, he should be unhappy until he had found some escape from his anger. He could not endure to have to own himself to have been in the wrong, but he could be content with a very incomplete recognition of his having been in the right.

That last sentence is just fantastic. One of Trollope’s best, in my opinion.

One final observation about another proud character. Mr. Crawley finds himself the in-law of the archdeacon, and the two must get along. Mr. Grantly, for all his faults, plays his cards right in the end. He stresses that he considers Crawley to be an equal, despite their difference in wealth - a sore point for Crawley - and then offers him a set of sermons published by old Bishop Grantly, the archdeacon’s late father. “And thus the archdeacon had hit his bird on both wings,” as Trollope puts it.

The Last Chronicle of Barset is a thoroughly enjoyable book. Don’t start with it, however. Go back and read the earlier books first. As usual, Trollope shows his timeless understanding of human nature and frailties. His characters, while in a setting most of us will never know, are three dimensional and true to the psychology that inhabits us all. The complexity of life, relationships, and emotions are all on display throughout the series. If you haven’t experienced Anthony Trollope, I highly recommend you give him a try.

1 comment:

  1. Having read one or more of your previous reviews of Trollope's books, I decided to try him out. I listened to an audio book of The Warden and quite enjoyed it. But, I chose The Claverings as my next book and, honestly, I can't seem to get through it. I enjoy Trollope's writing and the way he puts things sometimes, as you have mentioned, but I detest Harry Clavering as a hero and have little more appreciation for Julia. I may have to chuck it and try a different one to see if I can get through another one. At least I didn't pay for The Claverings. :-)

    Have you ever read any of R. Austin Freeman's books? His hero, Dr. John Thorndyke, is a medico legal forensic detective along Sherlock Holmes' lines, but more scientific in approach (in my opinion). There are quite a few books and I've enjoyed a number of them, although a few are bit too gruesome for my tastes. Freeman was British and most of the stories seem to center in London, or at least in Britain.